Running epic adventures, fueled by plants
By Henry Howard
Robbie Balenger toiled away in the restaurant industry, serving as director of operations and part owner of some pizzerias in Austin, Texas. It was a life of work hard, party harder.
Food, drink and stress consumed his life. That is until one day when his then-girlfriend, now fiancee, asked him to go on a run with her.
“I was finding that the pressures and the kind of responsibilities of my job were not really equating to the amount of nightlife I was living,” he recalled. “The run was to see if I enjoyed it to balance that out, and it really stuck.”
Two months after that first 2.5-mile run, Balenger moved up to a half marathon. Eight months later, he did a marathon and then a 50-miler the next year.
And he was only getting started on his journey that also includes a transition from scarfing down pizza loaded with meat and cheese to embracing a plant-based lifestyle.
‘A win-win for me’
In 2017, Balenger sold his share of the pizza restaurants and moved to Denver. Without being shackled by his career choice, his reconsidered his food choices. After reading Scott Jurek's book, “Eat and Run,” he decided to try a plant-based diet.
“The closer I got to a full plant-based diet, the more I noticed that my performance increased,” he says. “I was on this exploration to better understand how I could make bigger environmental impacts. As I was making these choices that were directly correlating to better performance, I also realized that the more I adopted a plant-based diet, the better it was for the environment. It was a win-win for me.”
Balenger’s transition to 100 percent plant-based was a process.
“It was something I knew I wanted to do, but food is something that's fundamentally a part of who we are and something that we do three times a day,” he explains. “I started filling my plate with more nutrient-dense, plant-based options. And then over the course of about four months, I was able to transition fully.”
That’s how Balenger would recommend the plant-based curious to proceed. The key, he says, is to focus on a
whole-food, plant-based diet.
“Make sure you're getting your legumes, your carbohydrates, good carbohydrates through rice and other stuff like that, and then good roughage, good greens, you don't really need to worry about much,” he says. “Where we fall into pitfalls is where we rely too much on overly processed foods. So, staying with things that are natural, that are in their natural state, and you shouldn't have any issues with that.”
Balenger also says there is a misconception related to protein needs. He says his plant-based approach supplies the protein he needs.
“Legumes go a long ways, and we incorporate beans into many of our meals,” he explains. “I'm a big fan of tofu. A tofu press will make it much easier to prepare, really being able to easily strain it of its water. I think that's the big thing that makes people kind of intimidated to use tofu. And nut butters as well. Try incorporating them into a smoothie in the morning.”
A game changer
It did not take Balenger to see the improvement in his training and recovery.
“I noticed right away there was much less inflammation, or less soreness,” he says. “I was able to run, go on a big run, say a 20-mile run then I'd wake up in the morning, and I didn't really feel sore. To me was a real fundamentally different experience.”
Without the soreness, Balenger could increase his training and fitness.
After 20 years in the restaurant industry and his new life unfolding, Balenger was looking for a way to make running the center of his life. That’s when in 2018, he traveled to Mexico for the Copper Canyon 50, which was made famous with the Tarahumara tribe and the book, “Born to Run.”
Balenger met Patrick Sweeney, who three years earlier ran across the United States.
“I was taken aback,” Balenger recalls of their conversation. “I didn't realize it was something that was possible or something people really did. The only time I'd really heard of it was in Forrest Gump.”
He set out on his 3,000ish mile path as a way to influence others to make the same food choices he did for environmental reasons.
On March 15, 2018, he unveiled the plan to his fiancé, saying he would start in a year, which he did. The journey from Huntington Beach, Calif., to New York City taught Balenger a lot about himself.
“I answered some questions and fulfilled some mottos that had been put in my head from childhood from my mother,” says Balenger, who was supported by NadaMoo and Switch4Good (Read previous interview with Switch4Good founder Dotsie Bausch. “One was that you can do anything you set your mind to. That was a very big one. Just realizing that well over half of anything we try to do is all mental. I just kept that focus, that mental stamina to say, ‘I can do this’ day in, day out, even when my body was hurting, it wasn't wanting to agree with me. You just keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
43 miles, 75 days
Step by step, he made it across the U.S. in 75 days, averaging 43 miles a day.
“I doubled down on this notion that a plant-based diet was the right thing for the best, most optimal health and performance,” he recalls. “Definitely proved that to myself and to others through this effort. I got stronger along the way. The amount of time it was taking me to cover 43 miles a day decreased along the way. I was getting stronger. I was getting faster. And now, looking back, two years later, my level of fitness and performance is probably double that of what it was before I started out. And a lot of that I give credit to the plant-based diet.”
Balenger kept a pretty predictable and strict diet, taking in about 8,000 calories daily. He would start every day with a large bowl of oatmeal, along with a cup of coffee. The oatmeal had nut butters, maple syrup, some nut, raisins and dried fruit.
Throughout the day, he would consume several 1,000-calorie smoothies made with coconut milk, nut butters, veggies, chia seeds and water. He would also beat starchy things like potatoes and pasta.
At the end of the day, he would have a big, big bowl of this camping meal called Outdoor Herbivore. “We had four or five different flavors, and we would cook that down with coconut milk,” he says. “Then I would have one beer. I always had one beer at the end of the night just to kind of relax and just chill, help my body to slow down and kind of prepare for the night's sleep.”
It’s all about adaptation
Especially early on, Balenger dealt with some physical issues such as shin splits and tendonitis. After all he basically tripled his weekly mileage that had been around 110-120 miles.
“When I went across the United States, in order to make it across in a timely manner, that went up to 315-mile weeks,” he says. “When you increase load to that degree, there's definitely going to be some aches and pains, injuries along the way.”
On day 20, he took off when the tendonitis flared.
“The tendonitis actually did stop me in my tracks,” he says. “It was the one and only day I took off on my 75-day journey. Was able to elevate the leg all day, ice it, and then the next day get on my way. But then what I found was, is I kind of had to do the opposite of what I had done when I had the shin splints, and instead wrap it with an ACE bandage, lower mobility. And through that lower mobility, I was able to continue.”
Balenger isn’t quite ready to detail his next big challenge, but says he is planning to take on many of the great trails that Colorado has to offer this summer.
And similar to his multi-month jaunt across America, Balenger’s success will directly relate to how his body adapts.
“It's about adaptation,” he says. “How do we get there? It's through applying a stressor over time. And if you do that, with enough time, eventually you will overcome whatever's ailing you. And that was what my body did. It just overcame it, and we were able to keep going.”
With his determination and clean, plant-based fueling, Balenger will surely continue to go far.
Name: Robbie Balenger
Hometown: Currently in Denver.
Number of years running: 8
How many miles a week do you typically run: when in top training mode around 100
Point of pride: Plant-based ultra endurance athlete. Transcontinental runner. Central Park Loop FKT holder.
Favorite race distance: 50 miles
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Rice and beans
Favorite piece of gear: Hoka Bondis
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: “Bad to the Bone” - George Thorogood
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: You can do anything you set your mind to.
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Instagram: @RobbieBalenger